January 16, 2018

How Much Are Mountain Lions “Eating” Into Your Hunting Opportunities?

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*Editor’s Note* – It was nearly 7 years ago that I wrote this article on mountain lions and the effect they might be having on hunting opportunities. It seems, almost as a yearly event, Maine begins another debate as to whether there are mountain lions in the Pine Tree State. Such is the case again, as John Holyoke of the Bangor Daily News, received some emails from readers who swear they saw a mountain lion.

With that in mind, I decided to unearth this older story and share it with readers again.

It seems that mostly what we hear these days is how predators, bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyote, bobcat, etc., have no effect on our deer herds. This of course is not true and is really a dishonest statement. Of course these large predators have an effect on the very areas in which they live. It might be more accurate to say that we don’t really notice the effect they are leaving behind until the game we hunt, which is often the same game these predators hunt, are disappearing.

If we look at the state of Maine as an example, here is a state that in the northern two-thirds there is essentially no more deer left. We have heard all the excuses – severe winters, loss of habitat, poor management, too many predators, etc. What we don’t seem to be getting a grasp on is what happens to our game management plans when the ecosystem gets torn to shreds by either uncontrollable circumstances(weather), or unpredicted effects(predators)?

I was emailing over the weekend with a good friend in Maine about the deer problems there. He made what I consider a profound and very accurate statement. He said, “Everything would be hunky-dory if we had not had two very severe winters in a row. It found all the weak spots in the management of the Maine deer herd.”

While I believe this statement to hold a lot of water, why is it we still are feeling this need to deny discussing some of those weaknesses other than blaming winters and habitat? As I pointed out just a minute ago, predators do make an impact on the very ecosystems that they live. In a robust ecosystem, most of us never pay notice to predators. In other words, there is plenty to go around – at least for now. So what happens when the ecosystem becomes lopsided? What happens when two severe winters in a row decimate a deer herd? What happens when two severe winters in a row finish off a deer herd that has already been weakened due to reduced habitat and too many predators, or at least what now appears as too many predators? These are some of the “weak spots” my friend was referring to.

Let’s take only one example, the mountain lion. But Tom! There are no mountain lions in Maine! Officially, there are no mountain lions in Maine nor are there any wolves and from my perspective it can remain that way until circumstances warrant a change.

Perhaps two months ago, this same friend sent me a photograph he had taken in Maine of what he believed to be a mountain lion kill of a whitetail deer.

mountainlioncovereddeer

 

I sent the picture for an opinion to some people who I knew had far more experience with mountain lions than either the two of us. Dr. Valerius Geist, a renowned biologist and expert on ungulates, commented this way:

We live in the boonies surrounded by large predators, including mountain lions. Deer vacate the land when puma show up. We know that from old work done with radio collared mountain lions and deer. So, no big surprise that the deer have vanished. Why the surprise over puma being present in the East?

I also got a response from George Dovel, editor of the Outdoorsman and years of experience in the outdoors.

Let me emphasize I am neither a cougar expert nor an expert cougar (mountain lion) hunter but I was a close friend to and hunted with the most successful Idaho lion hunter of the 20th century, *** *****, for a few years. During the 18 years I lived in what is now the Frank Church Wilderness I examined a fair number of cougar kills and, in those I examined closely on snow, I determined the lion always dragged the carcass at least a short distance once it killed or paralyzed the animal, and often – but not always – covered it. If the kill was not concealed by brush and/or trees and also covered by leaves, needles or other debris as in your photo, it was quickly discovered by magpies, ravens or eagles. The photo you provided might indicate a typical mountain lion kill.

So I have at least stirred up the idea in you that mountain lions might be around in a few places in Maine. What effect will this mountain lion have on the whitetail deer population within its territory? Under “normal” circumstances, probably none that would get noticed by the average hunter/outdoorsman. But what if the deer herd began shrinking because of winter kill, loss of habitat, etc.?

In the spring edition of North American Whitetail Magazine, 2010, Volume 28, Number 2, there is an article in there by Dr. James C. Kroll. He writes,

Although many state wildlife agencies still won’t admit they have lions, the public is now well aware they exist in a number of places. And, they can have a real impact on whitetails. In general, a male lion will eat one deer per week, while a female with young will eat two deer per week. The hidden blessing is that lions tend to have very large home ranges, and they therefore don’t defend their territories as vigorously as wolves or bears do.

If the mountain lion was ranging over territory that comprise whitetail deer populations that were healthy in numbers, let’s say 20 or more deer per square mile, I doubt any of us would ever much notice the deer the lion took out. Dare I say, we probably would not know the lion existed. But what if this lion was now living in the same territory where the population of deer has been reduced to 2, 3 or 4 deer per square mile. Being a good hunter, a hungry lion can finish off what remains of a deer herd within its territory, if it’s eating a deer or two per week. If the lion doesn’t completely wipe it out, it certainly can hamper the rebuilding effort or make it difficult to sustain a herd.

So now we are looking at a real predator problem, well, that is if one wants to maintain a deer herd. Where once the lion would go unnoticed, now hunters want to know where the deer all went. Predators do have an effect on whitetail deer numbers and under Maine’s circumstances one mountain lion ranging about an area with a drastically reduced deer herd, can finish it off. It’s now a problem. So, why not admit it?

Managing deer in Northern Maine, as well as parts of Downeast and the mountains in the west, is a challenge simply because geographically, these areas sit on the outer fringes of whitetail deer range. There will always be severe winters here and there and as my friend said, those bad winters show up the weaknesses in the deer management plan. If Maine wants to keep a deer herd in these areas, it best be plugging up some of these holes so that the severe winters, when they hit, won’t have such a devastating effect on the herd.

We can start by admitting that predators do have an impact on deer herds. How much we notice depends on certain conditions, some of which we are witness to now. We need to more closely monitor and manage predator numbers of bear, coyote, bobcats, as well as reduce competition for food and habitat between deer and moose.

None of this will be easy but a repeated denial that predators matter, isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Tom Remington

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  • RattlerRider

    The real ghost of the woods.. Only the dog can tree them..

  • Jan Williams

    Having some real predators, like mountain lions, will benefit your deer herd. Maine’s ecosystems have been unhealthy and out of balance for at least a century. What results are weakened herds of game unable to handle the inevitable fluctuations in their environment (i.e., severe winters, drought, disease outbreaks). Human hunting doesn’t cull the weak and unfit, quite the opposite. For healthy herds look to predators to do the job and you’ll end up with robust genetically fit herds of deer for all to enjoy.

    • TRemington

      Pure myth! There is no science to substantiate that claim because science does not support that claim. A forensic study and research into the relationships of predators and prey teaches us many things. That large predators provide for “healthy” ecosystems and put them in balance was proven long ago to be a myth. As a matter of fact, the very man who perpetuated the myth of balance of nature and the role large predators play in achieving his theorized balance, later in his work admitted that not only was his claim a false one, but that he made the statement for political purposes.

      Large predators play a role in our ecosystems, however over-protecting them, does create what humans perceive as an imbalance in other species, sometimes at the expense of placing such species in danger of sustainability, maybe even extirpation.

      • Jan Williams

        I have 30+ years experience as a wildlife biologist. I don’t advocate “over-protecting” any species including game species. If you coddle your deer herd you get an unhealthy herd. For those without experience in wildlife genetics think of it this way, if you have a line of award winning hunting dogs you don’t want to start breeding the runts together. Same with cattle, poultry, etc. It’s not rocket science. The science is very clear on this. I thought your column was legitimate and didn’t realize you were just another internet troll.

        • TRemington

          An Internet Troll? Get serious. You wouldn’t know a troll if it jumped up and bit you. It also matters not whether you have 50 years of experience as a wildlife biologist. Dr. David Mech has far more than you and he is the author of the lie about balance of nature and predators being intelligent enough to select the weak and sickly among its prey. What is being taught these days about so-called wildlife biology is nothing more than scientism. Or as James Beers, retired USFWS biologist calls it, Romance Biology married to Voodoo Science.

          Odd isn’t it that some who advocate for such nonsense are not intelligent enough themselves to logically conclude that if a predator is intelligent enough to select only the weak and sickly of its prey, then it is certainly intelligent enough to select the pick of the litter – i.e. the choice parcels. We can witness this with wolves, in particular, as they are partial to eating the live fetuses out of live female elk. They can detect a pregnant cow, and yet are we to conclude that a pregnant cow is a member of the “weak and sickly” you claim need culling to insure a healthy herd?

          You speak of “coddling my deer herd.” Of what are you referring? Please find anywhere in my writings where I advocate to “coddle” anything with the result being an “unhealthy” herd. Because I advocate to manage game species for usable surplus harvest, does not make for a deer coddler. Your biases are now beginning to shine through.

          If you want to have a discussion, then so be it. Because I present science that opposes your beliefs, that no more makes me a troll than me calling you a troll and landing here to offer your opinions. And besides, I own and administer this website and have for many years. How then is it possible to be a troll of your own website? Do you even know what a troll is? Obviously not because you landed here and began calling me names. That, by definition, is a troll. By your actions you have no credibility. Take your nonsense someplace else then please.

          Do as you wish from here on out. I will not and do not engage in such useless nonsense.

          • Jan Williams

            I apologize for using that particular language sir. And as far as coddling Maine’s game species that is not something I am accusing you of as in no way are you responsible for how Maine manages it’s natural resources. I also advocate to manage game species for usable surplus harvest so we can agree on at least that as a worthy goal. What so offended me about your website was that it promotes your personal opinion as science. You are entitled to your opinions and they should be listened to with respect. You however, do not behave responsibly when you promote your opinions and personal agenda as science. There’s a lot of that going on in this country and it serves no one. If you’d like to discuss the science of game management then let’s stick to the science which means peer reviewed published data. I might add that Dr. Mech is an elderly wolf biologist and not an expert on, let alone the founder, of the field of game management and I consider him irrelevant to the discussion at hand. That discussion is, as I understand it, whether or not Maine’s deer population would benefit from the recolonization of large carnivores. Rumors aside, except for an odd transient now and then, Maine has no native large carnivore species remaining and has not had any for many decades. This question is likely to be answered in the coming decades as both wolves and mountain lions recolonize the state. If Maine follows the pattern observed in the rest of the country the deer herds and their habitat will respond favorably.